Wednesday, January 24, 2024

St Babylas of Antioch, the First Translated Saint

In the Ambrosian Rite, and on the calendars of many medieval uses of the Roman Rite, today is the feast of St Babylas, the twelfth bishop (after St Peter) of the patriarchal see of Antioch. The feast is recorded on this day already at the beginning of the fifth century, in both a Syriac martyrology, and a Latin one traditionally (but erroneously) attributed to St Jerome. With him are celebrated also three boys whom he had brought to the Faith, and who were martyred along with or shortly after him. One of the earliest Western sources to mentioned them, St Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks (1, 30), calls them Urban, Prilidian and Epolon, but the names appear differently in some other sources.

The basilica of St Babylas in Milan. Its first foundation as a place of Christian worship can be traced to the time of St Ambrose himself (374-97); his third successor, St Marolus (408-23), received some of the relics of Babylas and placed them in the church. The building owes its current appearance to a restoration of the late 19th century; the monumental column in front of it has nothing to do with it. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0).   
St Babylas and the three boys, depicted in the church’s apsidal mosaic, also a work of the 19th century. (Photo by Nicola de’ Grandi.)
In the sixth book of his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea mentions Babylas’ election in passing (29, 5), around the same time as that of Pope St Fabian in 236. Later, at 39, 4, he mentions that the Saint died in prison “after his confession”; and this is all that he has to say about him.

Between these two references to Babylas, in chapter 34, Eusebius tells the story that the emperor Philip the Arab, who reigned from 244-49, attempted to enter a Christian church to celebrate the Easter vigil, but was forbidden entry by the bishop of the place, “until he had made confession and numbered himself among (the public penitents) … on account of the many crimes which he had committed. It is said that he obeyed readily, manifesting in his conduct a genuine and pious fear of God.” He does not say where or when this took place, nor does he specify Philip’s crimes. (There are other references in Eusebius to this emperor’s reputed adherence to the Christian faith, which have given rise to no little scholarly discussion.)
St John Chrysostom was a native of Antioch, born just under a century after Babylas’ death, and served the Church there first as a reader, then deacon, then priest, earning himself a reputation as a great preacher well before he became archbishop of Constantinople in 397. While still a cleric of Antioch, he gave a sermon about Babylas on his feast day, in which he states that the Saint had courageously forbidden an emperor (whom, however, he does not name) from entering a church because he had murdered a hostage, the young son of a defeated enemy.
Portraits of the emperors Gordian III and Philip the Arab on contemporary coins. (Both images from Wikimedia Commons: left, unattributed, CC BY-SA 3.0; right by Numismatica Ars Classica, public domain.)
These accounts were later conflated and elaborated on, so that it becomes Babylas who refuses Philip entry to the church at the Easter vigil, and this, because he had murdered his predecessor, Gordian III. (Gordian was in fact very young, just under twenty, when he died campaigning against the Persians on the Roman Empire’s eastern frontier, but the circumstances of his death are unclear.) The Ambrosian Breviary gives this as the reason for Babylas’ imprisonment and martyrdom, but it does not say exactly which emperor had him killed, nor whom exactly that emperor had himself killed earlier, a clear sign of the editor’s awareness that the conflation is regarded as historically dubious.
What is not doubtful is that Babylas is the first Saint for whom we have attestation of the translation of his relics. In a slightly later sermon about him, Chrysostom reports that the Caesar Constantius Gallus (351-54) had his mortal remains moved from their original burial place in Antioch to a church which he, Gallus, built near a famous temple of Apollo in a suburb of Antioch called Daphne; and furthermore, on their arrival, the oracle fell silent.
A painting of a medieval legend in which Julian the Apostate destroys the bones of St John the Baptist, ca. 1484, by the Netherlandish painter Geertgen tot Sint Jans. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Gallus’ younger half-brother Julian became emperor in 361, and abandoned the Christian faith, whence his historical epithet “the Apostate.” Chrysostom goes on to say that Julian went to Daphne “to weary Apollo, praying, supplicating, entreating, so that the events of the future might be foretold to him.” But the oracle, whom he sarcastically calls “the prophet, the great god of the Greeks”, replied that it could not speak: “The dead prevent me from uttering… but break open the graves, dig up the bones, move the dead.” Julian therefore he had the relics returned to Antioch, but the temple of Apollo was struck by lightning and destroyed the very next day. The contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus reports that Julian believed that the Christians had set it on fire, and in retaliation, closed the cathedral of Antioch.
The bishop who ordained St John a deacon, St Meletius, later built a new church in the martyr’s honor, where he himself would later be buried, and translated the relics once again into it. (This church, located in another suburb of Antioch called Kaoussie, has been discovered and excavated in modern times.) A further translation is reported in the early 12th century, to the Italian city of Cremona, about 50 miles southwest of Milan.
Plan of the martyrion of St Babylas outside Antioch. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
Despite the uncertainties of St Babylas’ history, his cultus clearly attests that the ancient Church did not merely venerate the relics of the Saints, but also held that the places hallowed by them were special focuses of God’s gracious presence in this world. In this regard, it is especially noteworthy how Chrysostom treats the act of moving the relics, depending on who does the moving.
When the oracle of Apollo (which he takes for granted is really a demon) requests that Babylas’ remains be moved away from its shrine, he denounces this as a violation of the very laws of nature. “What could be more impious than these commands? … Who ever heard of the dead being driven forth (from their resting places)? Who ever saw lifeless bodies ordered to be moved as he commanded, overturning from their foundations the common laws of nature, (laws which) neither Greek, barbarian, Scythian, nor if there be any more savage than they, ever changed; but all reverence them, and keep them, and thus they are sacred and venerated by all. But the demon raises his mask, and with bare head, resists the common laws of nature.”
On the contrary, when Gallus moves the relics to Daphne, he did this, according to St John, “because God moved his soul to do it.” And in turn, the very presence of the relics not only silenced the oracle, but also put an end to the lascivious behavior for which Daphne was known. “So great is the power of the Saints, whose mere shadows and garments (the demons) cannot bear to see when they are alive, and at whose urns they tremble when they are dead.”
The relics of St Babylas and companions (inter alios) in the Milanese basilica mentioned above. Photo by Nicola de’ Grandi.
For this reason, it is the common custom of both East and West to keep special feasts to mark the translations of relics, or to keep a Saint’s principal feast on the anniversary of such a translation, when it is not possible to keep it on the anniversary of his death. And indeed, Chrysostom himself is an example of this very custom. He died on September 14th, the Exaltation of the Cross, and is therefore kept in the West on January 27th, the day his relics were brought back to Constantinople from the place where he died in exile.

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